Where else can you cover the tribulations of the British Asian identity; the truth behind the Karmasutra; transgender discrimination; reporting India from a foreign correspondent’s perspective and question the relationship between photography and democracy? And these were just the sessions I went to. Though condensed into one day this year, JLF still managed to pack a punch.
The Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank brings together everything special to me - Indian culture, politics, literature and storytelling mixed with probably my favourite place in London. I’m a Southbank Centre member. Needless to say, it makes me very happy. Last year I tweeted that it was like my bookshelf had come alive - V.S Naipaul, Rajdeep Sardesai and William Dyrumple all in one weekend. This year’s bookshelf hero was Sunil Khilnani whose book, The Idea of India featured in my undergrad reading list and after hearing him speak, his new tome Incarnations now sits next to that.
Khilnani’s session explored the relationship between photography and democracy and questioned whether language is being replaced by images as people become content creators with the advent of technology, particularly the smart phone. We saw the role that social media played in capturing and telling the story of the Arab Spring. Can an image however really be taken at face value when it is a reflection of the photographer - how much has been edited and how much is dependent on the angle at a given moment? What are the implications of visual storytelling on the traditional novel and can they co-exist and what about the decline of photojournalism? Is this all just a symptom of the speed in which we access and respond to information and has the intimacy that we once experienced in storytelling gone? All that said, there are those that are using photography to give a platform, and a much needed voice, to those who have never shared their experiences. The advent of affordable kit means that street children, marginalised woman and the poor are being engaged to explore what storytelling means for them, what they want to say, and a creative medium to express themselves. Surely, that’s democracy right there?
The thing about the Jaipur Literature Festival is that it’s not just an opportunity to hear incredible people speak. It’s an opportunity to challenge yourself, your preconceptions and push your thinking. It provides a forum for free speech and thought. It’d be disingenuous not to mention the controversy that touched this year’s festival as human rights protestors took to vocalise their condemnation for one of the corporate sponsors, Vedanta Resources. The natural resources company’s bauxite and aluminium refinery in the Niramgiri Hills has received much criticism over the years as human rights defenders have worked with indigenous tribal groups to protect their land. I know the business well enough, having worked on its Sustainability Report for a couple of years. Corporate sponsorships can’t make up for dodgy corporate practice and despite responding to claims made by Amnesty International, the business, and the JLF by association, are marred by the actions of the past. For me, I’m grateful to belong to a society where we get to protest and have our voices heard. Interestingly, the business rejected the invitation to speak at the festival and respond to the protestors. A missed opportunity to drive the debate. In its absence, corporate practice and the pitfalls of sponsorship definitely became a hot topic both inside the sessions, and in the hallways.